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State Democrats call for end to 'fusion voting'

New York Democrats Monday posed the strongest threat yet to “fusion voting” when party leaders called for ending the system that allows candidates to appear on multiple ballot lines.

Democratic State Committee members meeting in Westchester County overwhelmingly endorsed the measure, which nobody has so far proposed for law. But weakening minor parties like Conservative and Working Families – as well as their influence in New York elections – could face a smoother path with backing by the Democratic Party that now controls all aspects of state government.

Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner, an outspoken advocate of eliminating fusion, said he hopes the vote will spur legislation and serious consideration by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

“It’s a strong message from Democratic leaders that our party should allow more choice,” he said.

Democrats like Zellner, who is also Erie County’s Democratic elections commissioner, have been talking about ending fusion for years. The effort gained new momentum in 2018 when actress Cynthia Nixon threatened to challenge Cuomo on the Working Families line and attract significant Democratic votes after losing to him in the Democratic primary.

Nixon eventually opted not to run on the Working Families line, which spurred new efforts to end fusion in New York, one of only a handful of states allowing the practice.

Minor party leaders have protested since the anti-fusion effort came to light. Even presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., weighed in to preserve the option of voting for major party candidates on minor party lines.

"We must preserve New York’s fusion voting system because it gives more voice to voters. I support the @WorkingFamilies Party’s efforts to protect this system, which gives voters a stronger voice in elections and in government," Sanders said on Twitter.

His tweet prompted a rebuke from Zellner.

“Sorry Senator, you are wrong,” Zellner wrote on Twitter. “Fusion voting takes voices AWAY from voters. When candidates are cross endorsed by multiple ‘parties’ it keeps activists off the ballot and simply becomes a way to influence elections which leads to corruption. See NYS ‘Independence Party.’ ”

Meanwhile, New York’s two Democratic senators – Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand – called for preserving the status quo.

“Democrats won ... new majorities in Albany and in Washington under the current system, with New York’s fusion laws on the books,” Schumer and Gillibrand told legislators in a letter. “It was under those laws, and with the strong support and endorsements from New York’s Working Families Party (WFP) that New York Democrats won three tough Congressional seats as well as picking up a historic eight state Senate seats, winning the largest Senate majority in generations.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and 16 other House Democrats from New York also signed the letter, according to Politico.

By Monday afternoon, the Westchester vote was also causing political reverberations on the other end of the state. Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy noted that Democratic County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz in January cited a Zellner op-ed piece in The Buffalo News calling for the end of fusion. The county executive said the practice “promotes corrupt backroom deals with minor party leaders who stand for nothing but themselves.”

Langworthy hammered away at Poloncarz after the Democrat’s “Cuomo-commanded vote.”

“If Poloncarz and his Erie County Democrats feel so strongly, then I call on him to denounce minor parties and not accept their nomination if it is offered,” Langworthy said. “If he takes the minor lines he is nothing more than a hypocrite looking for cheap attention."

Poloncarz spokesman Peter Anderson did not address Langworthy’s challenge but noted the county executive has been candid with Working Families officials about his fusion concerns. He said the state and local GOP has “co-opted” the Independence Party and attempted to take over it and the local Green Party by enrolling lifelong Republicans as new members of the minor parties.

“These ongoing shenanigans expose both the faults in fusion voting and the corruption in the local GOP, which obviously wants fusion voting to continue as it will strengthen their stranglehold on minor parties,” he said. “In this way, the Erie County GOP is not just supporting a system that is rife for corruption, but is playing an active role in corrupting it.

In recent years Poloncarz and Zellner have increasingly pointed criticism at the Conservative Party, resulting in few major Democrats seeking its nomination. But Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo, who often emphasizes local victories by Republicans on the strength of his minor party line, predicted any legislative effort to end fusion will fail because Working Families will discourage Democrats who receive their nomination.

“If the State Legislature were to vote against fusion voting, I would mount a lawsuit because I think it is constitutionally protected,” Lorigo said, noting Monday’s Democratic vote represents only an opinion and is not binding.

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